COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Nick Saban will take the win. You always take the win, especially in a Southeastern Conference game, extra especially when you're the road team in the biggest home game in the opponent's history. Doesn't matter how you get it, you take it and don't look back.
But the man is a defensive coach at his core, working 18 years solely on that side of the ball as an assistant coach and excelling in that area as a head coach. Scheming to stop the other guy is what he does best. He is wired that way.
So in the Alabama coach's flinty interior, a little part of him must have curled up and died at Kyle Field Saturday. He watched his defense shredded by Texas A&M for a school-record 628 yards of offense – breaking a mark set by Archie Manning and Mississippi in 1969. He watched his defense surrender 42 points, the most Alabama has given up in a regulation game in a decade – since Eli Manning and Ole Miss scored 43 on Mike Shula in 2003. He watched his cornerbacks utterly fail to cover Mike Evans, who had an astonishing 279 receiving yards – the third-highest single-game total in SEC history. He watched Johnny Manziel skitter through and throw over his team for 562 yards of total offense, the most ever in a league game.
Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, its offense chewed even bigger holes in the Aggies for a 49-42 victory. So you take it. You get out of the heat-baked prairie with your No. 1 ranking intact, even if your identity is a bit frayed.
Nick Saban, of all people, was reduced to winning a basketball-on-grass game that nearly matched last season's A&M-Alabama basketball-on-hardwood game in terms of points. (That one was Alabama 50, A&M 49.)
"We knew we were going to have to play this way today to win the game," Saban said. "I didn't think they were going to score 42 points, all right? But I kind of thought they'd score some points."
In a dramatic change of identity, the smash-mouth SEC has become a score-some-points league.
The first league game of 2013 was Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35. The second league game was Georgia 41, South Carolina 30. This was the third (ending before South Carolina-Vanderbilt and Auburn-Mississippi State Saturday). Average winning score of the first three: 43. Average losing score: 35.7.
To the dismay of Pat Dye, Vince Dooley and the Ghost of Bear, the SEC has become a defense-optional league. Hal Mumme and Mike Leach must be getting a good laugh at all this.
The two LSU-Alabama showdowns from 2011 that totaled 36 points suddenly seem like ancient history. When the two played in Tuscaloosa in that year's Game of the Century, there were no touchdowns. In this year's version of the Game of the Century, there were 13.
So what's happened? Texas A&M has arrived in the league and upped the tempo, with some copycats popping up this season (even the Tide ran some no-huddle Saturday, despite Saban's criticisms of that style as unsafe). There are a lot of very talented, veteran quarterbacks. There are plenty of explosive skill-position players. And there seem to be some very confused defenses out there.
Halfway through September, almost every fan base in the league is going to want to fire their defensive coordinator. But the best thing fans can do is embrace change and enjoy it. This is pretty entertaining.
Unless you prefer punts to touchdowns, or have something against flea-flickers and mad scrambles and 95-yard bombs.
Texas A&M doesn't have a good enough defense to win the SEC, but it still has the most captivating player in Johnny Football. He was great and terrible and lucky and unlucky Saturday; he is must-watch TV.
"There's a reason he won the Heisman," said Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. "I don't care what he does off the field, he's an unbelievable player.
"His arm strength looks like it's gotten better. He makes some great reads. He makes some goofy throws sometimes, but his elusiveness makes him very hard to contain."
Manziel's elusiveness led to the most memorable play of the game, where he and receiver Edward Pope teamed up for their own Eli-to-Tyree moment. Manziel twice eluded certain sacks, retreating 26 yards behind the line of scrimmage. From there he hurled the ball 44 yards downfield, into a jump-ball scrum, where the 6-foot-4 Pope bailed him out with the catch.
That was the lucky play. The first unlucky one came four plays later, when he aimed an end-zone fade for Ja'Quay Williams. It was not a perfect throw, but Williams appeared to stop on the ball and it wound up being intercepted by the much-burned Cyrus Jones. The game was tied at that point, and the Tide reeled off 21 straight points thereafter to take control.
The last seven of those points came on another unlucky play – a pass down the hash that bounced off a helmet and into the arms of Sunseri. He returned it 73 yards for a touchdown, his second pick-six in two games this year.
"I always think, 'What would Ed Reed do?' " Sunseri said. "So I tried to get in the end zone."
The defensive score wound up being crucial. But Alabama had plenty of big offensive plays, too.
Quarterback AJ McCarron shouldered the offense early, throwing for 220 yards and three scores in the game's first 21 minutes. Then 'Bama shifted to its trademark ground-and-pound approach, as a maligned offensive line plowed big holes in a soft A&M middle.
There was nothing complicated about it. The Tide muscled up and moved the Aggies out, with T.J. Yeldon rolling for 149 of the team's 234 rushing yards.
"Inside zone, outside zone, power," said Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. "It was three plays, really. T.J. left, T.J. right, T.J. smash."
Now that's old-school SEC football – except for the part where the other team is utterly incapable of stopping it. And when the winning team gives up a school record in yardage and its most points in a decade, then you know it's a different day in a defense-dominated league.
But just as Saban mentor Bill Belichick has learned to win with offense in the NFL, the Crimson Tide coach can win that way, too. Even if it kills him a little on the inside.